San Mateo County gangs once stayed on their own turf, operating by world of mouth and using baseball bats as weapons.
Now, gangs travel, text message plans and use full arsenals of
guns, machetes and even throwing stars to attack one another, according
to the local law enforcement who say they must also evolve to keep the
criminals in check.
Part of that cache was on display Friday as the San Mateo County
Gang Task Force, a multi-city, multi-agency group, highlighted the 461
arrests, 61 weapons and thousands of grams of drugs seized during its
annual 16-week summer crackdown. The county’s gang activity,
particularly associated homicides, is quite different now from before
the task force’s inception six years ago, according to Sheriff Greg
Munks. Instead of the 16 gang-related murders the year before the
county launched the task force, the average is now two to three.
Munks said he was publicizing the group’s work now to show that
even in these tough budgetary times, it continues operating
successfully using its own resources.
San Mateo County has approximately 2,700 validated gang members,
said Detective Sgt. Leo Capovilla of the Sheriff’s Office Gang
Intelligence and Investigation Unit.
Munks and Capovilla said the county will never be completely
free of gangs but the task force is keeping it under control. The task
force hits the streets daily for 16 weeks each summer, then monthly for
maintenance. The numbers of arrests and seizures are up this year but
Capovilla credits that to greater training and policing as much as
increased gang activity. The task force seized 33 guns this summer and
Colma Police Chief Robert Lotti said “these are not little pea
Displayed in front of Lotti were other souvenirs of the task
force efforts: blades, handguns, red and blue baseball bats,
semi-automatic weapons, swords hidden in canes — even a heavy piece of
rebar attached to a handle.
The world of modern gangs is a far cry from two decades ago when
Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said he prosecuted his
first gang case which involved two baseball bats and a golf club. The
danger now has escalated and the task force should be commended for
facing it, said Wagstaffe, who will take over as district attorney at
the end of the year.
One new twist to gang culture is “net banging,” in which phones
and texting is used to change plans and arrange crimes, Capovilla said.
After Los Angeles’ gang problem exploded, officials there warned
others not to make the same mistake of not addressing it early before
future members even hit junior high, he said.
The task force now combines its searches and field contacts with school and diversion programs, Capovilla said.
Wagstaffe said there are statistics available on how many of the
summer’s arrests lead to prosecution and conviction but that gang case
filings are up. Conviction rates, too, are higher than those of other
The flip side of the task force’s success is challenges housing
the gang members in the county jail. The overall population can include
up to 20 percent gangmember which must be separated so that Sureños and
Norteños don’t battle. However, if too many of one gang are housed
together they try taking over the pod, Munks said.
On top of existing overcrowding at the jail, the gang aspect
adds another layer of concern but that does not mean suspects will be
turned away or released unnecessarily, he said.
“There’s always room at the inn when it comes to getting violent criminals off the street,” Munks said.